Trawling for photos down the East Coast
I’m tired, cold and smell like a tin of cat food. This is my first taste of life as a deep-sea fishermen. Twenty-four hours on a fishing trawler outside Sydney Heads with Paul Bagnato, a fourth generation skipper.
The Bagnato family have run six trawlers out of Sydney since the 1960s, delivering Sydney’s freshest seafood to the Fish Markets every day of the week.
“We are on standby 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” he says. “It’s a tough life out here.”
He sees no future for his two sons in the family business: “Sometimes you make money, sometime you don’t and it just wouldn’t be fair on my two boys.”
It’s just turned 10pm and it’s pitch black inside the boat. I get a nice picture of Paul’s face as it glows in the reflection of his trusted GPS tracking system that will hopefully bring him good fortune tonight.
On the computer screen he studies hundreds of markings which he and the other five family boats have plotted over 50 years up and down the coast of New South Wales. The plots help them avoid becoming snagged or hitting a reef.
Out on the deck two huge floodlights attached to the mast fill the entire boat with light, without them we would not be able to fish throughout the night.
Having dropped the net three hours earlier, it’s time to haul in our catch. A 25-metre wide net is winched into the boat from the bottom of the ocean. Before the fish are sorted the boat is turned around and we drop the net again before trawling back down the coast.
I jump onto the roof of the boat to take a picture with my wide angle lens looking down onto our catch. I’m overcome by carbon monoxide spewing from the diesel exhaust as we chug along.
I hold my breath for half a minute and take as many photos as a I can before having to move away for fresh air. I return to gaffa tape my iPhone to the mast and set my iPhone camera to take a picture every 5 seconds. I get a wonderful timelapse (with the iTimelapse app) of the net being pulled in and the fish being shovelled into buckets.
It’s the middle of winter and Paul’s wearing his black tracksuit pants, yellow gumboots and beanie.
It has to be 5 degrees out here at 2am but Paul and the deckies just carry on like they’re manning a desk in a heated office.
It’s now time to start shovelling the fish into boxes. Once that is done the fish are then separated again into tailor, flathead, whiting and squid then packed with ice and stored downstairs in a cool room. The fish that are too small are thrown back into the ocean to a pod of seals waiting for an easy feed.
I’ve made it through the night without getting sea sick and I’m starting to get my sea legs. I find myself no longer using my arms to support myself, my body moves in the opposite direction of the boat and I’m able to move around the boat without holding on.
It’s very cold and I’m the only one outside, but I’m getting excited as I watch the sun come up over the horizon and want to take advantage of the amazing light.
I head to the back of the boat and find a nice picture of the nets in the foreground as we head towards sunrise.
Not a bad view from the office.
Before and after each haul Paul and the deckies come in for a cigarette break. It has to be the 60th cigarette between the three of them in the 20 hours I’ve been onboard. I feel myself getting sick. Not from sea sickness but from inhaling second hand smoke.
I have a feeling that Paul is going to light one cigarette after another as he did three hours earlier and I get myself into position for a picture I’d seen (but missed) earlier.
I expose for the clouds, focus on the glass edge and wait for the moment. I get it: a beautiful picture of his face lit by the cigarette lighter.
We’re now on our 5th drop for the night. One more to go. On the trip so far we’ve bagged one tonne of fish. Paul typically catches a tonne and a half on a trawl. That’ll bring in about $4,500 down the fishmarkets, where he’ll be headed tomorrow morning.
As the sun comes up I notice the nice light hitting the rope and I ask Tony, a deckhand, if I can take a portrait of him.
He’s a hard working, friendly man and I ask him to rest his head against the rope. He lives and eats on the boat and doesn’t have to worry about rent or food.
It’s down to the last haul of the day after 24 hours at sea. It’s cold, wet, no-one has slept and everyone’s mood has changed considerably.
Everyone is hoping for a good catch but it’s not looking good.
“Shit,” Paul says. The net is breaking in two because of the amount of fish in it. This would normally be a good sign, but they’re not the fish Paul or his deckhands want to see - they’re baby leather jackets.
Thousands and thousands of the little buggers fill the entire surface of the boat. Too small to keep, they have to sort through them one by one and sort the good from the bad before throwing them back to sea. This is a time consuming process. Feeling sorry for the crew, I grab a shovel and help them out.
But amid the chaos onboard the boat—sifting through sharks and thousands of fish—I’m reminded of nature’s beauty by a starfish sitting on the deck of the trawler.
This is the sight I’ve been waiting for. Centrepoint Tower peering through the nets of the trawler as we come through the heads into Sydney Harbour.
I’ve had enough. All I want is a hot shower, clean clothes and a warm bed.
Unfortunately for the boat crew the hardest part of the day is yet to come.
After 24 hours at sea they now have to unload the boat, re-ice 1.5 tonnes worth of fish, store it safely for auction the following morning before going to bed and doing it all again the next day.
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